“If a guy can be enough things in this business, he can make a living.”
Vaudeville actor Lon Chaney (Jimmy Cagney) hides the fact that his parents (Celia Lovsky and Nolan Leary) are deaf from his pregnant wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone), who panics when she meets them from fear of genetic transmission. Soon Lon and Cleva — whose son Creighton (Rickie Sorensen) has been born completely healthy — find themselves drifting apart, and Cleva seeks fulfillment by renewing her singing career; but Lon wants her home with their child and sabotages her career, sending her into a mental health crisis. Eventually Lon shifts to a career in silent film and marries a loyal chorus girl (Jane Greer) who provides a stable, loving home for their family — but will now-grown Creighton (Roger Smith) forgive his father for lying about the true status of his mother?
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Actors and Actresses
- Dorothy Malone Films
- James Cagney Films
- Jane Greer Films
- Marital Problems
- Vaudeville and Burlesque
As with most Hollywood biopics, this homage to silent screen star Lon Chaney, Sr. plays fast and furious with the facts, but manages to convey enough of this complicated actor’s thorny personal life and intriguing career that we remain engaged throughout.
While Malone is posited as the villainess of the story (how can she be so bigoted against kind Lovsky and Leary?!):
… we despise Cagney for withholding such crucial information from her, especially at a time when deafness was societally stigmatized. Meanwhile, we’re shown how irrational his desire to have Malone stay at home with their child is, given that Sorensen is a well-adjusted lad with plenty of support — particularly from the infinitely noble and patient Greer (talk about casting against type!) who is literally waiting in the wings.
Most interesting to film fanatics, however, will be numerous sequences of Lon using his skills with make-up to disappear into a variety of characters, eventually making a name for himself as the “man of a thousand faces” in films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923):
… The Phantom of the Opera (1925):
… and The Unholy Three (1930) (Chaney’s first talkie and last film):
Watch for Robert Evans in an appropriately stiff performance as young Irving Thalberg:
Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:
- James Cagney as Lon Chaney, Sr.
- Dorothy Malone as Cleva
- Russell Metty’s cinematography
Yes, for its historical value and for Cagney’s performance.
- Historically Relevant
- Noteworthy Performance(s)